The Malay Mail 23 July 2012

THERE is a global rise of citizen’s movements which are playing a major role in ensuring public confidence in the process, conduct and institutions pertaining to elections through domestic observer teams. We are seeing increasing concerns on these matters in ensuring ”free and fair elections” not just in Malaysia but in many parts of the world.

These initiatives are not ad hoc but have evolved into global coalitions and consensus building. There is formal standard setting and developing methodologies which will ensure credible election observation which can be deemed impartial, nonpartisan and drawing on objective observation process and conclusions.

One such global process is the ‘Declaration of Global Principles for Non-Partisan Election observation and monitoring by citizens organisations” and “Code of conduct for non-partisan citizen election observers and monitors”. Also known as the Venice Document it is endorsed by over 160 nonpartisan election monitoring organisations in over 75 countries including both the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat and popularised by the Carter Centre.

It is regarded that ”the Declaration’s launch marks an important milestone in the history of non-partisan citizen election observation. Since 1986, at least 90 countries have benefited from the efforts of nonpartisan citizen election monitoring, and more than three million citizens have participated as election observers. These efforts have built public confidence in elections and safeguarded electoral integrity”.

In addition the “Handbook for Domestic Election Observers” produced by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe- Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE-ODIHR) is a significant training tool which complements the declaration and code of conbduct. The OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organisation and is made up of 56 States from Europe, Central Asia and North America.

Malaysian Concerns

In Malaysia a number of organisations which have pioneered domestic observations and have been playing an active role in election observations, The major ones are the Malaysians for Free and Fair Election (Mafrel), The National Institute for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (NIEI), Tindak Malaysia and Jom Pantau of Komas.

Recently, the Election Commission (EC) announced the appointment of a number of organisations as domestic observers for GE 13. These include Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), independent pollster Merdeka Centre, Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS-ASLI) and Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M). They have also been involved in electoral reform and monitoring.

The EC must be commended for this initiative. The EC Chair, Tan Sri Aziz Mohd Yusof has come out in the open to clearly highlight that this is an effort initiated by EC to enhance transparency and public confidence in the election process. This was not part of the recommendations of the Parliamentary select committee nor part of the Bersih2 demands but something that EC is instituting as good practice.

The EC has begun to identify and engage with civil society organisations in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. They have had a series of dialogues with organisations as well as have heard representations made by a number of organisations. This open door policy by the EC is welcomed and must be the way forward in engaging with all organisations committed to electoral reform. A number of civil society organisations have criticised the appointment of a selected few organisations and ignoring the major election monitoring civil society.

In this context, Proham hosted on July 16, a discussion entided “Domestic Election Observation and GE 13 : Benchmarking to International & Global standards”. The basic objective was to seek civil society perspectives on domestic election observations. It was also to create a policy discussion space on this key matter of public concern especially among civil society organisations.

Nine major civil society organisations mentioned above participated along with representatives firom the Election Commission, Suhakam and the UN Office of tiie Human Rights High Commissioner based in Bangkok. This is one of the first time that such a discussion of the major stakeholder have been undertaken. There must be more such dialogues as this will reduce misinformation and distortions on policy issues which are being formulated without much open public discussion.

The Proham discussion was moderated by Tan Sri Ramon Navartnam (Proham/CPPS-ASLI) with Tan Sri Simon Sipaim (Proham Chairman) giving the introductory remarks and Yeen Seen of CPPS-ASU presenting an overview table benchmarking EC conditions with International standards on the one hand and on the other civil society views.

The most significant consensus point which emerged in the discussion and which can effectively guide the conduct of domestic observation and EC is that the Election Commission must adopt a global-international standard in setting conditions and tenns for the conduct of domestic observation. This call was for EC to publically adopt the Declaration and Code of Conduct and use this as its governing framework.

It can serve as the guiding principle for the appointment, accreditation, terms and conditions for non-partisan election observation in Malaysia. Such a move was felt will restore confidence in the appointment and selection process which was recendy criticised by many civil society organisations.

There is therefore the urgent need to benchmark all aspects to international standards especially in appointments, terms and conditions, mies and guideline pertaining to observations especially in matters pertaining to media access, information and data gathering, public interview, provision of public funds for observation process, observers training, public awareness campaign on citizens role and final report writing and presentation.

This is the challenge before the EC. While we know that some sections might not be relevant, nonetheless our standards must be on par with international norms and globally accepted standards, we cannot condone to anything less. It is also strongly felt that if this is done it will enhance the credibilitv of the Election Commission and silence many of the critics.

In this context four organisations now considering their appointment by EC namely Ideas, Merdeka Centre, CPPS-ASU and TI “called upon the EC to ensure all rules imposed on accredited observers, as well as the process of accrediting the observers, comply with these international standards”. They also “urged the EC to ensure that the whole process of election observation adheres to intemational standards”.

Some recommendations

While there are no laws in Malaysia nor an official policy on domestic observation, the EC could institute a number of things for the short term and long terms process.

It is imperative that EC publically state the criteria of selection, application, and review and appointment process. These must be stated clearly publically.

In the short term the EC could consider appointing a review panel to vet the applications and recommend appointments of domestic observation organisations. This panel could include representatives from Suhakam and other organisations like Bar Council which will enhance the independence of these appointments.

In the long run EC should enact specific amendments to its act in order to make some clear legal provisions for the appointment and conduct of domestic observer’s team to enhance the election process in Malaysia. This context too Parliament should make some budgetary provisions for this purpose.

Active and dynamic citizen’s participation is also on the rise in Malaysia like many other nations. The new trends and demands of enlighten voters and citizens must be seriously considered. It is imperative that political leadership recognises these and respond positively to the voices and concerns of citizens.

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